Travel writer Carrie Gerard shares her thoughts on travelling during the festive season

Written by Caroline Gerard
Images by Carrie Gerard

For some people, the thought of spending Christmas abroad must be bizarre. If you are away for the holiday season, you’ll miss out on all of your family’s Christmas traditions: you won’t get to walk the dog on Christmas day, you won’t get to eat your grandma’s roast dinner or play drunken card games with your cousins and you definitely won’t be able to watch the Queen’s speech or the Doctor Who Christmas special. If going away for the holidays means that you miss out on everything you love about Christmas, then why on earth would you go?

It’s true, being away for the holiday season can be hard. I spent the last academic year studying abroad in Canada and in some ways, my Christmas felt noticeably un-festive. Spending Christmas abroad meant celebrating without my family. Although I squeezed in a couple of Skype calls with home, Christmas Day was mainly spent with university friends. As my friends and I were staying in an Airbnb for the season, we did not have festive decorations or a Christmas tree. Plus, as a group of relatively broke students who were spending all their money trying to stay afloat in Canada, we did not exchange presents either. Three of the usual traditions of Christmas – family, decorations and presents – were missing from my Christmas Day. Yet I wouldn’t have changed it in the slightest.

Christmas spent abroad is an eye-opening experience. Seeing how different cultures celebrate, or don’t celebrate, the festive season is invaluable. Christmas is surprisingly different in every country, even amongst Western societies which share a similar culture. In Canada I had a genuine ‘white Christmas’, and for some of my Australian exchange friends it was the first time they had seen snow. I was lucky enough to spend Christmas day on the ski slopes, followed by a trip to a snowy outdoor hot tub – things that are simply impossible to do in England! However, for my friend who did a year abroad in Melbourne, Australia, it was hot. 30 degree weather meant that Christmas Day was spent at the beach playing volleyball, followed by a BBQ Christmas dinner cooked on the balcony (Tim Minchin’s song ‘White Wine in the Sun’ finally makes sense). These two versions of Christmas Day could not look more different.

Christmas spent abroad is an eye-opening experience

If you travel to Asia, Christmas might even be unrecognizable. Two years ago I spent Christmas in Myanmar, a country that is 85% Buddhist and where the holiday is barely acknowledged at all. Yet in Japan, despite the fact that it has such a small Christian population, the season has undergone huge commercialisation. Christmas Day sees people lining up outside KFC after a marketing campaign in the 70s convinced the Japanese population that this is what Westerners eat for their Christmas dinner. Anywhere you go in the world, Christmas is going to look profoundly different – and this is why going abroad at this time of year is so enticing.

Believe it or not, there is more than one way to celebrate this holiday, and seeing how the rest of the world does is an enlightening experience. As universities increase their mobility each year, more and more students are studying abroad. You never know – you might be having your own international Christmas soon.